Mornings, Levine zips himself into a warm-up suit, grabs coffee, pops old jazz in the tape player, hefts a fat fountain pen and a yellow pad, and settles into his armchair to write some of the best poetry in America.
Fifty years ago, the same guy, “in a dirty work shirt that says ‘Phil,’ ” would have been punching in at Chevy Gear & Axle, Detroit Transmission or the Mavis Nu Icy Bottling Co., would have been running jackhammer, muscling cases of soda pop, polishing flexible plumbing tube.
Philip Levine published “The Simple Truth” (Knopf) last month, his 16th volume of poems and his 20th book, including translations and essays, in 31 years. A collection of essays, “The Bread of Time,” was published early in 1994.
In “The Simple Truth,” as in all his earlier books, from “On the Edge” in 1963 to the National Book Award-winning “What Work Is” in 1991, Levine is our “poet of the night shift,” as one critic calls him, the writer who knows in his own bones the corrosive effects of heat, foul air, long hours, low pay and heavy work.
Such conditions, he admits, were an unlikely seedbed for poetry.
“I was born in the wrong year and in the wrong place,” he says in the title poem of “One for the Rose” (1981). The year was 1928, eve of the Great Depression. The place was Detroit, where Levine and his identical twin, Eddie, lost their father at age 5 and went to work as soon as they hit their teens.
An amateur boxer, Levine enjoyed physical work at first. He believed working with his hands would leave his mind free for poetry. Indeed, when asked which job was the worst, he likes to say Detroit Transmission was pretty bad, but the semester he spent teaching poetry to a classroom full of future lawyers and doctors at Princeton was worse.
If there was a pivotal moment that drove Levine from the factory to the academy, it may have been when co-workers baked him a cake to mark his first anniversary at a plumbing supply house called Brass Craft. He was appalled. He thought he had only been there a few months. He quit the next day.
“I felt myself wearing down,” he said during a recent chat in the living room of his comfy old bungalow in fog-bound Fresno. “I wasn’t going to have the strength or will to keep writing. Now I see that it made me as a poet.”
On the strength of a master’s degree from Wayne University (now Wayne State)--his thesis was on Keats’ “Ode to Indolence,” of all things--Levine got a job teaching part-time at the University of Iowa, which enabled him to crash the Iowa Writers Workshop, the hothouse for American poetry of the 1950s and ‘60s.
The poems and connections he forged in Iowa City snagged him a one-year fellowship at Stanford University, which led, in turn, to a job at Fresno State in 1958.
His twin still lives in Detroit, still runs his grandfather’s and his father’s used auto parts business. He is also a painter of some local repute. Even though Levine left Detroit more than 40 years ago, you’d never know it from the poems.
“Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter,” he intones in his most famous poem, “They Feed They Lion” (1972). “Out of black bean and wet slate bread, Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar, Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies. . . .”
Let others sing of nature or New York City.
“Detroit is perfect for me,” Levine said in his gravelly, urban-Midwestern voice. “It’s not dinky. It’s just big enough. I know it. I’m a Detroit-sized poet. It took me a long time to be able to write about it without snarling and snapping. I had to temper the violence I felt toward those who’d maimed and cheated me with a tenderness toward those who had touched and blessed me.”
What makes Levine’s work so compelling is that the poems are not just about his co-workers, but for them. Quoting Walt Whitman, Levine calls his poems “vivas for those who have failed”:
For a black man whose name I have forgotten who danced all night at Chevy Gear & Axle, for that great stunned Pole who laughed when he called me Jew Boy, for the ugly who had no chance, the beautiful in body, the used and the unused, those who had courage and those who quit. --From “Silent in America”
Mockingly, Levine calls himself “Fresno’s dumb bard”: Aside from an occasional reference to the fruit trees in his back yard, the magpies and oaks in the fields, he has written more poems about the two years he spent in Spain than the 36 he has spent in the San Joaquin Valley. What little he does write and say about Fresno is not kind.
“It’s spread out into a little L.A.,” he said, “with all the disadvantages of a big city--crime, pollution, druggies--and very few of the advantages.”
What about the nearby Sierra Nevada, Yosemite?
“Hiking was what we did in Detroit when the car broke down,” he cracked.
Chief among Fresno’s disadvantages, for one who makes his living jetting to poetry readings, is the lack of a big-league airport.
So why not go elsewhere, now that, at age 66, he’s retired from Fresno State?
Levine was aghast. Abandon his doctor, his dentist and his mechanic?
“It took ages to find these people,” he said. “You don’t just run out on a great car mechanic.”
Then, too, nobody gets rich writing poems. Levine’s biggest blockbuster has sold 25,000 copies, which is not exactly in Stephen King’s league. Levine and his wife, Fran, a painter, have settled into one of Fresno’s loveliest neighborhoods. Where else could they live as well?
“The truth is, I can’t afford New York, I don’t care about the Bay Area so much and I don’t write as much in those places as I write here,” Levine said. “I’m not in the poetry world when I’m here and I don’t like being in the poetry world. People start kissing my ass and try to use me. Nobody does that in Fresno.”
But plenty of people around town know who he is--"Levine the poet?” he was asked when he recently joined a new gym--but a famous poet is not famous like a famous actor, athlete or musician is famous. Published routinely in the Atlantic and the New Yorker and praised lavishly by influential critic Harold Bloom (“I wonder if any American poet since Walt Whitman himself has written elegies this magnificent,” Bloom gushes on the jacket of “The Simple Truth”), Levine is untroubled by the paradox of his anonymity.
“It’s something you accept when you accept poetry, because for the last several hundred years poetry has not been the driving force, not in America,” he said.
At the same time, he blames the titans of the previous generation, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, for making poetry so forbidding to modern readers. Their attitude, Levine said, was “ ‘If you don’t have my education you better get it.’ I resent that.”
Not that Levine’s poems are easy. Many are dense with the kind of surreal images found in the work of the Spanish poets he admires.
“ ‘Will the reader understand?’ is not a question you can ask yourself,” he said. “My hope is I’ll lure him into working very hard.”
Readers of poetry may not be numerous, but they’re loyal. For them, Levine said, “Poetry matters the way it’s always mattered: to make sense out of our emotional lives, to show us the possibilities of language.”
For them, Levine uncaps the fountain pen, worries the yellow pad.
“Poems are curious beasts,” he said. “They come on their own time or they don’t come at all. You have to be patient and wait for them.”
Even after all these years, Levine can’t quite believe that this is how he gets to spend his time.
“Jesus, Levine,” he marveled. “There are all these other people who’ve got to go out at 6 a.m. and pick onions or fix cars. You live in such immense luxury.”
He exaggerates, of course. For one thing, “after years of living badly, without security or certainty,” the comfort he has attained is no more than that of a middle-class retiree.
For another thing, this business of making poems is also hard work.
Another dawn, leaden and cold. I am up alone, searching again for words that will make some difference . . . . --From “Words”